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Chris Ballard: Colts landed best defensive player in 2024 NFL Draft in UCLA DE Laiatu Latu

Latu totaled 23.5 sacks and 126 total pressures over his last two seasons with UCLA. 

Day # Takeaway

Fourteen offensive players went off the board before the Colts went on the clock with the No. 15 overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. The unprecedented run on offense included a record-setting six quarterbacks selected in the first dozen picks.

And that left the Colts with an opportunity to take, quite literally, whichever defensive player they had highest on their draft board. Let's emphasize this again: With the 15th overall pick.

So when general manager Chris Ballard said Thursday night he believes the Colts "got the best defensive player in the draft," in UCLA defensive end Laiatu Latu, it wasn't the kind of hyperbolic statement you'll hear in press conferences at this time of year.

Latu, undisputedly, was actually the guy the Colts believed was the best defensive player in the 2024 NFL Draft.

"I thought we got a little lucky on it," Ballard said. "We thought there were four or five really elite players, and he was one of them. We felt fortunate to get him."

Latu totaled 23.5 sacks and 126 total pressures over his final two seasons with UCLA, and joins the Colts not only with standout athletic traits – he ran a 4.62-second 40-yard dash at 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds at the NFL Combine in February – but with established collegiate production. The Colts believe dropping him into a defensive line that set an Indianapolis-era franchise record with 51 sacks in 2023 gives them a strong chance to consistently get after opposing quarterbacks moving forward.

"I think he's gonna produce pretty quickly as a rusher," Ballard said. "I think he knows how to rush. Of course there's going to be an adjustment period, as there is with any rookie rusher. He's pretty polished. This guy's a pretty polished product in terms of rushing. Of course you're going to have to learn, especially against (NFL) tackles that are so good, and the protection schemes are so good. So that'll be an adjustment for him. But he's a smart kid. He'll figure it out."

Any way you look at Latu, he proved to be the most productive pass rusher among Power 5 players (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC) over the last two seasons:

Table inside Article
Stat # Rank
Sacks 24 1st
Total pressures 126 2nd
Pressure % 21.5% 1st
Pass rush win rate 23.1% 1st
PFF pass rush grade 94.3 1st

So why, then, was a player of Latu's caliber still available in the middle of the first round?

The answer probably starts with six teams taking a quarterback before the 15th overall pick: The Chicago Bears (Caleb Williams, No. 1), Washington Commanders (Jayden Daniels, No. 2), New England Patriots (Drake Maye, No. 3), Atlanta Falcons (Michael Penix Jr., No. 8), Minnesota Vikings (JJ McCarthy, No. 10) and Denver Broncos (Bo Nix, No. 12). Three wide receivers – Marvin Harrison Jr., Malik Nabers and Rome Odunze – went in the top nine picks, and four offensive linemen plus tight end Brock Bowers went in the first 14 selections.

Colts Audio Network breaks down the Laiatu Latu pick, first round of 2024 NFL Draft

But a bigger deal, at least for some teams, may have been Latu's medical history. In 2020, prior to his sophomore season at Washington, Latu sustained a neck injury in practice that led him to undergo surgery and be medically retired from football.

Latu said he didn't feel the process that led him to be designated as medically retired was handled properly – there was no physical exam or testing that led Washington to make that decision – and his goal was to prove everyone who said he would never play football again wrong. Latu transferred to UCLA after being medically cleared by a specialist and didn't miss a game during his two seasons with the Bruins.

Ballard said he asked a "ton of questions" about Latu's medical history, potential for a re-occurrence and long-term outlook in the NFL during the pre-draft process, and he and the Colts ultimately felt more than comfortable with using a high pick to draft him.

"Like our doctor said," Ballard said, "he just played two full years with it and had (24) sacks."

Latu didn't have much contact with the Colts during the pre-draft process, but that wasn't because the Colts didn't value him as a prospect – it was the opposite. Latu's tape speaks for itself, and the background work Colts director of college scouting Matt Terpening and area scout Chris McGaha did on his character revealed an outstanding fit within the team's culture.

"He fits what we stand for in every way," Ballard said. "There's some guys you bring in to dig, dig dig on. He was one we had a really good feel for after the combine. I thought we didn't need any more information and the character was really strong."

The Colts will slot Latu into a defensive line rotation that contributed 46 of the team's 51 sacks in 2023, and returns 44 of those sacks in 2024. Versatile defensive ends in Dayo Odeyingbo (eight sacks in 2023) and Tyquan Lewis (four sacks) can kick inside on pass rushing downs, while a healthy rotation between Latu, Kwity Paye (8.5 sacks) and Samson Ebukam (9.5 sacks) will look to keep the Colts' defensive ends disruptive on a down-to-down basis next to Pro Bowler DeForest Buckner (eight sacks) and run-stuffing menace Grover Stewart.

Ballard said after drafting Latu, the Colts feel as good about their defensive front as they have in the last seven or eight seasons. And in an AFC dotted with a majority of the NFL's premier passers, having a defensive line – with Latu now on board – that can consistently wreck plays is something the Colts believe they can lean on in 2024 and beyond.

"I think our stable up front – it's good," Ballard said. "We're really good up front."

Check out photos of Colts draft pick Laiatu Latu at the 2024 NFL Draft in Detroit.

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